The Civil Society Bookshelf

Critical Mission: Essays on Democracy Promotion

The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 6, Issue 4, September 2004

By Thomas Carothers
Reviewed by Craig L. LaMay

In 1989, as the United States government and various private organizations began to send people and money into Central Europe to help with the democratic transition, historian Jacques Barzun published a brief essay in Societyin which he asked just what these missionaries proposed to teach. Democracy has no commanding orthodoxy, he wrote. The great writers on the subject do not agree, and taken together their writings do not form a system: “The Federalist writers are afraid of democracy; John Adams disputes Tom Paine and goes only part way with Jefferson. Burke and Rousseau sound like direct contraries. Tocqueville calls for so many of the special conditions he found here that his conclusions are not transferable. Bagehot does the same thing for Great Britain: you have to be English to make the English Constitution work.”[1] And it gets worse. The democratic theorists wrote on a few similar subjects but employed an enormous variety of terms peculiar to their own experience and institutions. When they did use the same terms, they frequently meant very different things. The “array of ideas and devices cannot but be daunting,” Barzun wrote. “Which are essential? How should they combine?”[2]

Until recently, the answers to these questions did not matter much. Two decades ago, no one needed a theory to know that democracy, however defined, was preferable to the military dictatorships of Europe, Asia, and Latin America, or to South Africa’s apartheid police state. Democratic theory mattered less than democratic survival, and for that it was enough to be steadfastly anti-communist, even if that required occasional and emphatically anti-democratic means. For democrats in a dangerous world, foreign aid operated within a fairly narrow set of national security objectives.

Then the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, in the midst of what Samuel Huntington has called the “Third Wave” of global democratization. The wave began in the mid-1970s, and since then some 60 countries have changed from various forms of non-democratic regimes to nominally democratic ones. As well, several new countries have joined the world community, so many that the number of independent countries in the world is open to dispute. By most accounts there are 193 now, though somehow 201 “National” Olympic Committees sent teams to Athens this year. Freedom House counts 192 sovereign states in the world; it categorizes 121 as “electoral democracies,” 88 as “free,” and another 55 as “partly free.”[3] By Freedom House’s calculations, then, as many as 60 percent of the world’s countries are now democracies–almost twice as many as in 1985, though for a dozen or more, that label almost certainly claims too much. Forty-six percent of them are “free,” the highest percentage since Freedom House began its surveys in 1972.[4] More telling, half of those “free” states have enjoyed that status for less than 15 years[5] ; several of those are in Asia, a region that still has its share of authoritarian states but was once thought to be wholly unreceptive to democratic change. This year alone there have been or will be national elections in Taiwan, Indonesia, South Korea, the Philippines, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, India, and Japan. The first four of those were dictatorships two decades ago. In South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, and India, voters this year have punished extremist opposition parties with authoritarian tendencies.

The questions still confronting many of these new democracies are whether their political transitions are permanent, and, if so, what obstacles lie in the way of democratic consolidation. Perhaps the largest obstacle, Huntington has written, is the recognition that “democracy is a solution to the problem of tyranny, but not necessarily to anything else.”[6] Poverty, ethnic and racial conflict, inadequate economic development, chronic inflation with substantial external debt, and political leaders–many of them either former dissidents or holdovers from the previous regime–who are not fully committed to the democratic ideal of lawful and peaceful transitions of power, all militate against successful consolidation. In transition countries as varied in their political, economic, and cultural experience as Russia and Indonesia, democracy’s hold has been irresolute.

Nonetheless, democratic idealism has flourished in the past 15 years, and democratization has become an industry. Western sources have pumped billions of dollars into Central and Eastern Europe, Latin America, and to a lesser extent Asia and Africa. The United States government alone is estimated to have spent more than $1 billion during the 1990s on democracy assistance in Europe, with private sources contributing millions more. As a percentage of foreign aid, democracy assistance is small, accounting for only about 16.5 percent of total aid to Central and Eastern Europe during the 1990s, and about 3.5 percent of the total to Russia and the Newly Independent States over the same period. According to Thomas Carothers, the authoritative chronicler of this industry, democratization assistance from all sources, public and private, now totals approximately $2 billion per year (not counting assistance to Iraq).[7] That assistance supports a fairly consistent set of objectives: to promote fair elections with universal suffrage; to develop political parties; to guide legal, judicial, and administrative reform; to strengthen civil society, public education, and social services; and, above all, to promote free-market economies.

The global democracy project has achieved some remarkable successes. Arguably, the Cold War’s concluding chapter was written in November 2002, when at their summit meeting in Prague the 19 members of NATO invited seven former communist countries to enter the alliance in 2004, those to follow three others–Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary–that had become NATO members in 2000. One month later the 15 European Union members invited eight former communist countries, plus Malta and Cyprus, to become members, which they did this past spring. Another entity, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, has constrained conflict from Central Asia to Southeast Europe and has created a forum for security and human rights that includes both the United States and the Russian Federation. Americans have paid little attention, but these developments are important because for most of its history Europe has existed in an almost natural state of war. What began in 1951 as the European Coal and Steel Community was of course never about coal and steel, but about peace between France and Germany; whatever its shortcomings, the EU is today also about creating a new community of democratic nations. As such, the EU constitutes an important balance of influence (if not power) to the United States, and one object of that influence will be the future of democratization efforts in Southeastern and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.

For better or worse, that future has been transformed by the foreign policy of President George W. Bush, who came to office scorning his predecessor’s “soft” use of U.S. military power in the service of nation-building and peacekeeping, but by November 2003 seemed to have reversed himself, declaring, “The advance of freedom is the calling of our time. It is the calling of our country.”[8] As Bush knows, this moralistic approach to international politics long predates him, with antecedents in Woodrow Wilson’s arguments for the right of national self-determination. More recently, the United States and its NATO allies employed similar logic in Kosovo for the stated purpose of enforcing UN Security Council resolutions, but without Security Council authorization. President Bill Clinton said at the time that the bombing was necessary “to prevent the slaughter of innocents on [NATO’s] doorstep,”[9] in effect asserting moral justification for what was often called a “humanitarian war.” In Iraq, Bush has claimed the same justification (among others), but against enormous international opposition. In Iraq, the United States has also engaged in the historically unique project of democracy-building at the point of a gun. The most closely comparable modern efforts are the rebuilding of Japan and Germany after World War II, but both of those were defeated enemies who had engaged in a war of open aggression against us; less favorable are comparisons to the U.S. efforts under Presidents William McKinley and Wilson to “liberate” and then democratize the Philippines and Mexico, respectively. Whatever one’s view of the Iraq war, it has made a hash of the moral and strategic judgments that have always combined in U.S. foreign policy. As The New Yorker put it, “The war has everyone from George Will to Michael Moore sounding like an unsentimental realist with no patience for any American involvement overseas.”[10]

For advocates of democracy promotion, then, Barzun’s questions from 15 years ago still linger: Is democratic theory for export, and if it is, what specifically should aspiring democracies copy? Barzun was skeptical. Those of us who live in open societies value our freedoms and can name their advantages, he wrote, but that does not make us models for others: “A democracy cannot be fashioned out of whatever people happen to be around in a given region; it cannot be promoted from outside by strangers; and it may still be impossible when attempted from inside by determined natives. Just as life on earth depended on a particular coming together of unrelated factors, so a cluster of disparate elements and conditions is needed for a democracy to be born viable…. The parts of the machine are not detachable; the organism is in fact indescribable, and what keeps it going, the ‘habits of the heart,’ as Tocqueville called them, are unique and undefinable. In short, we cannot by any conceivable means ‘show them how to do it.’”[11]

* * * *

The literature on democratization can be divided roughly between the work of academics in a number of disciplines and, well, that of Thomas Carothers, the founder and director of the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Carothers is an international lawyer who knows the broad academic literature on democratic transitions as well as many academics do, but who has also spent much of his career as a practitioner in and around the democratization business, working both in government (in the State Department) and as a consultant to government aid agencies such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and to quasi-governmental ones such as the National Democratic Institute. As a result, he writes about his subject with an attention to detail that journalists admire but that academics find frustrating for its want of an organizing theory.

Anyone who straddles the worlds of professional practice and scholarly research has known the feeling of being not quite at home in either. Carothers is critical of most academic writers on democratization, and he is not above reducing them and their ideas to caricature for the purpose of heaping scorn. Sometimes that scorn is deserved. Academics in this field sometimes call themselves “transitologists,” for instance, a term that, whatever its social science justifications, I suspect has its origins in a grant proposal. Occasionally, too, the theories sheltered in academic writing on democratic transitions manage to obscure more than they reveal–for example, the popular notion that cultural or religious values are the main impediments to democratization in Asia and the Islamic world. Maybe the problem stems from the way scholarly work gets reduced to television sound bites, but the effect is the same: to make simplistic what are complex challenges. For example, in Indonesia–an Asian country and the world’s largest Muslim nation–the operative values that pose the critical problem for democratization are not Asian “culture” or Islamic “culture,” but rather the many juxtaposed and overlapping “cultures” that coexist within the same political boundaries: tribal communities in Kalimantan and New Guinea; agrarian, semi-feudal communities in the provinces; a growing middle class; and the technology-adept capitalist elite in Jakarta. Add to this the fact that Indonesia stretches across one-eighth of the world’s circumference, in an archipelago of 17,000 islands containing more than 300 different ethnic groups that speak as many different languages, and democracy promotion starts to look tricky.

At times, though, Carothers is unnecessarily dismissive of academics and their work. He has written that “democracy promotion is only weakly present in scholarly research circles,”[12] a claim that seems not to square with the evidence. In one form or another, democracy and democratization are prominent topics on the book lists of major academic publishers these days, and Johns Hopkins University Press has published the Journal of Democracy for almost 15 years now. Stanford University has an interdisciplinary center for democratization studies led by Larry Diamond, a respected scholar who, like Carothers, has worked in the democracy-promotion industry. Georgetown University recently launched the Center for Democracy and the Third Sector, led by political scientist Steven Heydemann, whose own expertise is democracy and economic development; the Georgetown center recently published the inaugural issue of its online journal, Democracy and Society.[13] No doubt a lot of academic work in the field is remote from and even irrelevant to the concerns of people living in transition countries or working for assistance organizations. But much of it is excellent and deserves more attention and respect from practitioners. At Duke University, to take just one example, the foremost scholar on Russian media policy, Ellen Mickiewicz, also co-chairs the Commission for Radio and Television Policy in Central, East, and Southeast Europe, a democratization NGO founded by former President Jimmy Carter more than a decade ago to work directly with broadcast journalists and policymakers in those regions. The commission deals with problems that are at once conceptual and intensely practical, such as the attributes of a “free and independent” broadcast system and the specific terms by which politicians and parties should get access to it during elections.

Much of the non-academic literature on democratization is produced by government agencies and private organizations whose priority is to please current funders and till for new ones, and, with the exception of several USAID papers, much of it is conspicuously uncritical. Carothers’s work, by contrast, is unique both for its practical perspective and its sober analysis. Given a choice, he will choose an inconvenient fact over a well-constructed theory. He is the democratization industry’s most consistent advocate and its most unrelenting critic. While defending the larger goals of U.S. democratization efforts against academic and political critics from the left and the right, he is quick to point out the field’s tendency to embrace fads, its general lack of nuanced reflection, and its penchant for overstatement. At times he is even a doubter. He acknowledges that the United States is not always the best model, or even a good one, for an aspiring democracy, and he emphasizes three things–the importance of fitting aid programs to local cultural norms and practices, the need to think about the long-term sustainability of aid programs, and the problem of meaningful program evaluation–that still get short shrift from many NGOs and intergovernmental organizations (IGOs).

In his new book, Critical Mission: Essays on Democracy Promotion, Carothers offers an inside account of the democratization industry–its place in U.S. foreign policy, its operational components and assumptions–that is largely unavailable anyplace else. The book is a collection of Carothers’s writings from 1994 through 2003, many of them previously published in journals such as Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, and the Journal of Democracy, and others as Carnegie Endowment working papers. Some of the essays are co-written with colleagues at Carnegie and elsewhere.

Critical Mission is a quicker and more accessible read than Carothers’s much more comprehensive Aiding Democracy Abroad (1999).[14] It is also more current, with essays on the Clinton administration’s vague and vaguely appealing “democratic enlargement” policy; the George W. Bush administration’s position on democratization, which Carothers characterizes as “neo-Reaganism,” or a foreign policy willing to partner with “friendly” dictators in the name of national security; the future of democracy promotion in a “postmodern world”; and an entire section on the prospects for democracy promotion in the Middle East, where Carothers welcomes the prospect but criticizes the Bush administration’s “excessive optimism” in the run-up to the Iraq war and doubts the depth of its commitment to the region.

One of Critical Mission’s most interesting chapters is “The End of the Transition Paradigm,” a controversial 2002 article from the Journal of Democracy, in which Carothers argues that the Third Wave may have flattened out or even reversed course. His argument is that only a few relatively affluent countries once thought of as transitional have successfully consolidated. The greatest concentration of those states is in the Baltics and Central Europe, with about a dozen others scattered across Latin America, Africa, and Asia. In a disproportionately large number of other countries, by contrast, transitions have effectively stalled; their governments are neither dictatorial nor democratic, but instead exist in what Carothers calls a “political gray zone.” Marina Ottaway, also at the Carnegie Endowment, has characterized these states as “semi-authoritarian”[15] ; Larry Diamond calls them “competitive authoritarian” regimes.[16] Many of these countries have elections in which two or more parties compete for and share power, but in every other respect democracy is a dead letter. The state itself is weak and generally unable to address the country’s problems; public participation extends little beyond elections, and the public perceives politicians and government officials as corrupt and self-interested. Many Latin American countries fit this profile, but so do countries in Europe (Ukraine), Asia (Nepal), and Africa (Sierra Leone). In every case, the defining feature of this stagnation is that the political elites are, in Carothers’s words, “profoundly cut off from the citizenry.”[17] They compete for power and they may even collude to acquire it, but they use it only to promote their own interests, often through a vast patronage system.

In other gray-zone countries, one group of elites–whether a party, a family, or an individual–has come to dominate to the extent that the distinction between the state and the ruling elite is almost nonexistent. These dominant-power countries have open elections, but they are often marred by fraud, and the institutions of governance, in particular the judiciary, are hard-pressed to maintain independence. Citizens are free to vote but see little point in doing so, and the economy is often hobbled by corruption and cronyism. Such dominant-power countries are common throughout sub-Saharan Africa, where once-pluralistic regimes have essentially ossified into one-party states (for example, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, and Tanzania), and in some of the former Soviet states of Central Asia (for example, Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan). Some Middle Eastern countries that have liberalized (for example, Egypt, Algeria, and Jordan) also fit the bill, having transformed themselves from authoritarian countries to dominant-power states, but the Middle East as a whole remains the region least open to democracy. Whatever energies exist to counter the ruling regime in these gray-area states, Carothers says, usually reside in civil society groups and independent media that depend for their survival on Western funding.

Several things make “The End of the Transition Paradigm” the most compelling part of Critical Mission. One is that it explores succinctly the various and often unsatisfactory uses of the term “democracy.” Journalists sometimes use it very casually to describe a country that has managed to hold an election (or, better, two) more or less free of fraud. Others use the term formally, to describe a system that combines universal suffrage, regular fair and free elections, governmental agencies accountable to elected officials, and a legal system that protects against arbitrary state action and provides for free expression. Neither of these usages speaks to whether and how citizens engage with their government, or to how power is distributed among citizens, and so both ignore the modern emphasis on civil society and participatory democracy. In addition, “The End of the Transition Paradigm” is helpfully followed by four critical responses–two from scholars, one from a USAID official, and one from an official of the National Democratic Institute, a U.S. government-funded democratization NGO–and a summary response from Carothers. Taken together, the essay and the discussion frame many of the substantive and procedural questions at the core of democracy promotion. The larger section in which the essay appears, “The State of Democracy,” also provides a brief introduction to some of the other theoretical and empirical work on the subject of democratization; some readers may prefer to read this section first.

“The End of the Transition Paradigm” was originally published between the events of September 11, 2001, and the 2003 Iraq war, a time when the world got a good look, and a not very encouraging one, at the state of global democracy. This is the cloud that hangs over all of Carothers’s writing, and over the democratization industry as a whole: the problem of the global “democratic deficit.” Carothers discusses the problem briefly in his chapter “Promoting Democracy in a Postmodern World,” but the existence of the problem does not deter him from concluding that the democratization industry, though it may never become “a strong, coherent field,” will continue to grow in the decades ahead, because it is now embedded in the larger assistance enterprise of economic development, which requires good governance for its success. But as David Held has observed, there is a profound paradox to this enterprise: Even as more countries champion the idea of democracy and more national groups argue for the right of self-determination, the efficacy of democracy at the level of the nation-state has been undermined by the processes and institutions of globalization.[18] And as many writers have noted, global democracy is only in its infancy and, as yet, not very democratic.

In normative terms, the problem for global democracy is figuring out who “we the people” are, how they might meaningfully participate as citizens, and how representation should operate. A common way to measure democratic legitimacy, for example, is to look at political inputs and outputs, but in the international arena the link between popular activity and policy is tenuous at best. Consider the fact that the protests of some 11 million people in 800 cities around the world on February 15, 2003–what The New Yorker characterized as the largest one-day protest in history–had absolutely no effect on the decision of the U.S. and British governments to attack Iraq a few weeks later. An alternative view might emphasize activist groups that have won victories in the form of international treaties and new international organizations in areas as varied as nuclear weapons testing, dam construction, a ban on land mines, human rights enforcement, and so on. As praiseworthy as many of these things are, though, it is not clear, as Ann Florini and P.J. Simmons write, that “global problem solving [should] be left to a loose agglomeration of unelected activists.”[19]

With respect to political outputs, which give elected governments legitimacy, citizens care about such things as economic and personal security. But, as Fritz Scharpf argued in his 1999 book Governing in Europe, such forms of security are disappearing.[20] For more than two decades, government spending on public goods (schools, basic research, health services, transportation) and on the social safety net (jobs programs, unemployment insurance, pensions) has been in decline in Western democracies, pressured by the global financial markets and by political and economic policies that have strongly favored the privatization of what were once largely state functions. In many cases, these policies have led to innovation, better services, and lower prices for consumers, most obviously in telecommunications and air travel, but they also deny citizens many of the services they most expect from government. The Germans term this process amerikanische Verhaltnisse–“American conditions.” In developing nations, these socioeconomic policies, enforced by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, have forced governments to cut social spending as a condition of assistance. Everywhere, state regulation has been challenged by the market as the best determinant of the public interest–and as most consistent with “freedom”–in areas such as environmental quality, food safety, workplace safety, and financial services. With some important exceptions (Russia, for example), the only area of public spending that has remained conspicuously untouched around the world, and in some cases has been significantly increased, is spending for military and police forces.

Taken together, these trends raise questions about what purposes the withered state is supposed to serve, and more particularly about what popular sovereignty is supposed to mean. Presumably even weakened states will always be able to command some loyalty from their citizens, but it may be loyalty of the most destructive and undemocratic kind. As former European Parliament President Klaus Hansch once said with respect to Europe, at the very moment when governments are losing their ability to deliver the goods and services their citizens need, citizens are growing ever more nostalgic for the sense of “belonging” that is at the root of nation-state identity.[21] Against all this, the global security challenge to democratic governments in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, is to identify, assist, and reclaim the world’s so-called failed states–Afghanistan, Sudan, Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, and others–from the desperation that produces global terrorism, and to prevent other states–such as Zimbabwe, Colombia, and Sri Lanka–from failing. It is not clear how established democracies are supposed to do this even as they themselves are rewriting the terms of their obligations to their citizens.

Today the system of global governance is built on a network of interrelated IGOs, NGOs, transnational corporations, and nation-states, of which only nation-states are sovereign within the ordinary, democratic meaning of that term–that is to say, accountable to voters. But states are less powerful than they used to be; Robert Dahl has compared their role in the international system to that of local governments within nation-states.[22] NGOs often wear the mantle of “civil society” in the system of global governance, but as Carothers and others point out, NGOs are themselves unaccountable to anyone but their directors or members, and as such are a poor substitute for public representation. Neither are they necessarily democratic in their impulses and activities. Helmut Anheier writes that they behave variously as “protectors of pluralism and minority preferences and guardians of elite privileges; as extra-governmental forces for democracy and control; as sources of innovation and paralysis; and as instruments and competitors of regimes in power.”[23] Carothers notes often, and it should be noted here, that the democratization industry is replete with smart, principled, dedicated, and experienced people, both in national and international government agencies and in the many NGOs that focus on everything from drafting constitutions to financing small businesses. Aid recipients, however, are often wary of these organizations because they perceive their interests to be different from or even opposed to their own. Sometimes, of course, they are right, especially in potentially volatile places such as Kosovo and Bosnia. More problematic is when aid recipients believe that USAID and other U.S. government-funded programs are acting on behalf of U.S. foreign policy interests. Most recently, the National Endowment for Democracy’s heavy involvement in funding groups opposed to Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez has aroused old and well-founded suspicions among Latin Americans that the United States’ support for electoral democracy in the region is mostly empty rhetoric.[24]

What lies ahead? Some commentators, Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye among them, are cautiously optimistic about the future of global democracy,[25] while others are deeply pessimistic. Some–Samuel Huntington and Robert Kaplan–have described a future characterized by war and general lawlessness.[26] Others believe as Cicero did that the world will insist on being governed, but that it will not insist on democracy. Dahl worries about a third transformation in governance that will result in “de facto guardianship” at the international level, a world run by unaccountable, unwise, and self-interested elites.[27] More darkly, the British writer Hedley Bull argued almost 30 years ago that global governance will be a chaotic mix of competing authorities and conflicting allegiances reminiscent of the Middle Ages.[28] Mary Kaldor, Helmut Anheier, and Marlies Glasius have described what they call a new phase of “regressive globalism,” a form of “displaced, latter-day quasi-imperial, nationalist, or fundamentalist thinking in the context of global capitalism.”[29]

Even among those who believe that the global democratic impulse cannot be restrained, some see plenty of potential for violence. Huntington, for instance, argues that the so-called “democratic-peace hypothesis”–the idea that democracies do not fight other democracies, and therefore the greater the zone of democracy in the world, the greater the zone of peace–may be wrong.[30] This is what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has called, more colloquially, the “Mickey D’s theory of world peace,” the principle that countries with McDonald’s restaurants do not go to war with each other.[31] Friedman later qualified this theory after NATO bombed Belgrade, which has many McDonald’s restaurants, including one only blocks from the government buildings NATO destroyed. But to the extent that democratization is an irreversible global phenomenon, it seems at least possible that the consequences of that process may not be what democratic theorists would expect. As Huntington says, there is no reason to think that a democratizing or even democratic China would be friendly and unaggressive toward the United States–quite the contrary.

The democratic-peace hypothesis is limited above all by a lack of evidence to support it. Until the middle 20th century, there were so few democracies in the world that they did not have much opportunity to fight one another; during the second half of the century, almost all of the world’s democracies were part of a United States-dominated alliance against the Soviet Union. Moreover, as Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder have argued, what evidence does exist suggests that democratizing countries, because they are unstable, are more likely to engage in wars and other violent conflict than either stable democracies or stable autocracies.[32] Amy Chua, further, has written that within many developing countries, contrary to all conventional wisdom in the foreign aid community, the combined pursuit of democracy and free markets “may catalyze ethnic tensions in highly determinate and predictable ways, with potentially very serious consequences, including the subversion of markets and democracy themselves.”[33]

At one point in Critical Mission, Carothers waves off such concerns (in a discussion of Fareed Zakaria’s writing on “illiberal democracy”) as the “thundering prognostications of gloom and doom” from the “chattering classes.”[34] Maybe so, but Carothers’s own work is a litany of cautions. He also knows (having written about it) that in many of the states where the democratization industry does business, including several where it claims success, some of the biggest obstacles to stable governance are the detritus of globalization’s dark side: regional and global trade networks in illicit drugs, small arms, human beings, money laundering, pornography, and terror. Organized crime networks, often with complicity of ostensibly democratic governments, run this international trade, and some assistance personnel are alleged to have been involved, if only locally.

Legitimate businesses critical to democratization’s prospects are also affected by globalization. In my own work with journalists in Central and Southeast Europe, I have often been told that the relevant competition for start-up news organizations is not local or even regional but international news sources, including CNN, the BBC, Reuters, and the Associated Press. CNN International has an annual budget of approximately $1.2 billion, and though its coverage of, say, Central Europe, may be narrow and superficial, it enjoys a competitive position in the market for advertising, production, and distribution that makes it very difficult for regional and national broadcasters to compete. In addition, very often the kinds of media that do find a market are not what a fledgling democracy needs. There can be and usually are lots of other problems in media start-ups, including poor planning, low professional standards, and inexperienced management, but the point is the same: the future of democratic enabling institutions and processes in such places as Serbia, Guatemala, and Indonesia depends to a greater extent than ever before on actors beyond the control of state governments.

* * * *

Perhaps the biggest missing piece in all of Thomas Carothers’s thoughtful writing is a discussion of the world’s largest experiment in democratic transformation, the European Union. The EU parliamentary elections in June 2004, in addition to sending large numbers of vehemently anti-EU delegates to Brussels, constituted the world’s biggest-ever multinational democratic vote and the world’s second-biggest democratic vote (after India’s). Moreover, Europe is a major source of democracy assistance and promotion in its own right–indeed, in financial terms a source larger than the United States. At the same time, however, the term “democratic deficit” was originally coined to describe the EU, and the European project underscores the difficulty of transferring domestic norms of governance to the international arena, where the law of nations is no longer sufficient to deal with transnational issues. In Critical Mission, Carothers discusses the crisis of democracy in both Western Europe and the United States, but not the EU itself, an omission I assume is purposeful.

The enlargement of the EU from nine countries in 1973 (when it was known as the European Economic Community) to 10, 12, 15, and currently 25 countries, represents in some obvious respects a triumph. Whether it represents a triumph of democracy is harder to say. The 1991 Maastricht Treaty was not an overwhelming success when it was put to voters, and the recent enlargement was possible only because the Irish, who had rejected the Nice Treaty when they were first asked to vote on it, were compelled to vote a second time so as to come up with a more acceptable answer. In the European Parliament elections in June 2004, voter turnout was abysmal–an overall average of 45 percent–with the weakest turnout in several of the new member states. In Poland, for example, only about 20 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. Meanwhile, in old and new member states alike, voters showed their unhappiness with the EU by supporting nationalist, populist, and anti-EU parties. Of the new members elected to the 732-member Parliament, more than a quarter (as many as 200) are from parties opposed to union.

The good news, perhaps, is that a voter turnout of 45 percent, even when adjusted for states such as Belgium and Luxembourg where voting is compulsory, is still better than Americans can muster for their legislative elections: only 39 percent of eligible U.S. voters turned out for the 2002 mid-term elections. Moreover, the Parliament’s many new members, even if their platforms will make decision-making more difficult, will fairly represent the range of European public opinion on matters related to European unity. The bad news is that public representation in the EU grows increasingly weak. The low turnout in 2004 marked the sixth consecutive drop since parliamentary elections began in 1979; European-wide elections always draw far fewer voters than national elections on the continent do.

None of this is to overlook the EU’s accomplishments as a model of governance. With its new members, the EU now accounts for almost half of the world’s outward foreign direct investment, and it wields equal or greater diplomatic influence than the United States with important regional powers such as Russia and Brazil. In a number of areas central to global governance–international law, economic development, social welfare, environmental regulation–European ideas frequently find greater global favor than do American ones. Other regional alliances, including Mercosur, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the African Union, have found models for their own political institutions in the EU. And while Europe is not a rival to the United States militarily, it contributes 10 times as many military personnel to UN peacekeeping operations as the United States does. The EU’s 60,000-member Rapid Reaction Force is supposed to be ready for deployment soon; the size of that force is based on the size of the international force originally in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the EU will take over all peacekeeping duties from NATO later this year. Finally, the EU’s “New Neighborhood Initiative,” announced in May 2004, extends the reach of Union financial assistance and political influence to the Caucasus states of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.[35]

Still, as an experiment in democratic sovereignty the EU is a work in progress. The recent enlargement required the 10 new member states to hold referendums on the matter, but voters in the existing 15 member states had no such opportunity. The French government briefly floated the idea of holding such a vote but just as quickly dropped it. Enlargement has left many of the EU’s smaller members fearful of a two-tier institution in which the ministers of Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain act as a de facto directoire. Wealthier members worry that they will be called upon to support development in the new member states, while those who are currently the beneficiaries of EU development assistance (Ireland, Spain, Portugal, and Greece) worry that they will soon get much less of it.

Central and Eastern Europe’s democratizing states are a particular challenge for the EU. Without question, many of them have made remarkable economic and political progress in a stunningly short period of time, but the costs have been high. Some of the “reforms” that were endorsed in principle by expert advisors from the West have done a lot to undermine public confidence both in the market and in democracy. Most notoriously, the process of privatization in some countries was really just a looting of state assets, with the result that the economic and political power once concentrated in state hands is now inequitably concentrated in a few private ones. Crony capitalism is combined with political systems in which many former communist officials remain in power, now as “democrats.” Some of the EU’s newest members (some of which are also now NATO members) have doubtful democratic credentials and none-too-stable politics. Latvia, for example, has had 12 governments since 1993, the most recent installed in March 2004. Over the same period, Poland has had eight governments; the Czech Republic and Hungary each has had five.[36]

But the core of the democratic-deficit charge is that the EU is just a burgeoning bureaucratic superstate, remote from citizens and their concerns. The most common gripe is that the European Parliament is the only EU body whose members are directly elected. At the root of that criticism are the same questions that have always troubled democratic theorists: Can citizens really be expected to make the complex decisions required of modern governance, especially if they are ill-informed or uninformed? If bias is inherent in a system of representation, how best to control it? How does one reconcile differences between majorities and minorities? All of these questions come down to the problem of defining the “public interest,” and in the context of the EU that interest can be especially difficult to discern. As The Economist argued before the recent elections, “Europe” is a notion, an abstract image, which competes poorly if at all for the allegiance of its subjects. “Democracy does not work on a Europe-wide basis,” the magazine editorialized, “because Europe remains a collection of nation-states, not a United States.”[37] Anthony Smith has questioned why a citizen of Germany, France, Spain, or Poland would choose to identify with Europe over his own culture and history: “Without shared memories and meanings, without common symbols and myths, without shrines and ceremonies and monuments, except the bitter reminders of recent holocausts and wars, who will feel European in the depth of their being, and who will willingly sacrifice themselves for so abstract an idea? In short, who will die for Europe?”[38]

Other writers have disputed Smith’s emphasis on the “natural links” of culture and history, or have argued that such links are no less artificial, no less imaginary, than the kind of civic nationalism on which European union is based, in which allegiance is not to national identity or kinship but to a set of civic values and norms and the institutions that embody them. Civic union, indeed, is a central purpose of the European project, an effort to avoid the destructive intolerance of societies divided by ancestry, blood ties, and skin color. As former British European Commissioner Lord Cockfield once said, “The gradual limitation of national sovereignty is part of a slow and painful forward march of humanity.”[39] Is it part of the march of democracy, too?

Finally, of course, the work of European union is not done. One of the biggest remaining challenges is Turkey, which was granted accession status in 1999. The historic gateway between Europe and Asia, Turkey is part of both lands and at home in neither. Since World War II, Turkey’s foreign policy has sought to link the country organically to Europe, but it is a Muslim country outside of Europe’s traditional borders, and many Europeans strongly oppose its EU candidacy. That opposition has intensified as Europeans perceive themselves threatened by militant Muslims already living in the West.[40] Others point with concern to Turkey’s weak human rights record, particularly with respect to its Kurdish minority; its poor record on matters of free expression; its history of military interventions in domestic politics; and the influence of anti-democratic, Islamic fundamentalist groups in the country.

Arguably, Turkey’s democratic credentials are no worse than, for example, Croatia’s, another accession country. But even those who support Turkey’s EU candidacy will acknowledge that admitting it to the Union will provoke a strong negative reaction from, and new support for, nationalist and anti-immigration movements already doing quite well in Western Europe. Turkey is economically underdeveloped, with an economy equal to just 1.9 percent of the GDP of the current 25-member union and a GDP per capita of only 27 percent the EU average. For these reasons, Turkey as an EU member would be eligible for large budget transfers. Further, migration, if it occurred at the same rate as now occurs from the new member states, would send about 225,000 Turkish immigrants to Western Europe each year. Even with that migration, Turkey would within a generation surpass Germany as most populous country in the EU. As such, it would also have the largest number of votes in the EU’s legislative bodies, the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, in a Union that already accounts for as much as 50 percent of new domestic law in its member countries. As one politician told The Economist, “Letting Turkey into the EU would mean more Le Pens and Haiders.”[41]

* * * *

If the very nature of democracy is changing, there is relatively little discussion of that change in Thomas Carothers’s work. To be fair, it is not his principal concern. Overwhelmingly he writes about and cares about places where, against the experience of political repression, ethnic conflict, and war, people are trying to reassert control over the conditions of their own lives, and in many cases to reclaim their dignity as human beings. And he is not much interested in the institutions and processes of formal democracy unless they make participatory democracy real–that is to say, they give citizens a voice in government decision-making and provide some measure of social and economic equality. The problems may be complex but sometimes the proposition is still straightforward. As was true 30 years ago, when thugs associated with a former dictator go to a newspaper publisher’s house in Guatemala City, beat his children in front of him, and warn him to be careful what he puts in the paper, you do not need a theory to know that the country is not free. Neither do you need a theory to know, when an Albanian newspaper in Kosovo publishes the names and addresses of alleged Serb conspirators, with the implicit or sometimes explicit suggestion that they and their families be killed, that liberty is not democracy. And you don’t need a theory to know, as Amartya Sen has written, that economic development in Southeast Asia is not a substitute for basic political freedoms.

These are the kinds of places, people, and problems that Carothers cares about, and so he is understandably impatient both with realists who argue “it cannot be done” and with the moralists who underestimate how long and hard the work will be. Yet there is a bit of both the realist and the moralist in Carothers, too. He frequently chides those in the democratization industry for their paternalistic thinking and behavior, and though he favors public participation of a kind that has largely disappeared from advanced representative democracies (what Dahl, in fact, calls “polyarchies”), he is realistic about the difficulties of making such participation possible, never mind meaningful, in states still struggling to escape authoritarian or violent pasts.

For these things alone I admire his writing on democracy-promotion, even if at times I harbor doubts about the whole enterprise. If you want some doubts of your own, look around the USAID Web pages and try to understand the agency’s “managing for results” evaluation system, a series of quantitative and qualitative goals that field officers are supposed to test annually against several democracy “indicators.”[42] Pick a democratization goal–any goal–then click through the layers and layers of indicators and sub-indices and ask yourself if this looks like a good way to build a democracy. Carothers himself has described the system as “intricate to the point of Byzantine and wrapped in the lingo of modern corporate management methods.”[43] He acknowledges that this only begs the question of what evaluation methods would work more reliably, and he acknowledges that many democratization NGOs measure success essentially by how much money they make and spend. In the end, though, the problem of program evaluation raises again Professor Barzun’s question about just what this industry hopes to export.

Democracy promotion will never devise a straightforward answer to this question because no one who takes the subject seriously ever has done so. Even the Greeks struggled with the implications of “rule by the people.” It is easy to point to democratic lapses around the world and to glaring imperfections in both established and aspiring democracies. Carothers’s response, in effect, mirrors that of international law practitioners who must constantly confront the charge that international law, because it relies on the voluntary obedience of sovereign states that ignore international judgments when it suits them, is not really law at all: Virtually all domestic legal systems can also point to examples of unlawful behavior and legal non-compliance, but compliance is the norm and not the exception. Democracy may not be susceptible to easy definition, but whatever it is, it is now the global norm, which is why exceptions to that norm, including our own, are so well publicized. And when states do act contrary to international judgments, they usually seek to justify their actions by appealing to democratic principles. The appeals may be disingenuous, but that does not change the fact that, as Carothers says, democracy has come to be understood internationally as a benefit in and of itself for reasons that are, to cite another reputable source on the subject, “self-evident.”

Not much else is self-evident, though. Carothers writes in an afterword to Critical Missionthat “the principles of democracy are quite clear,”[44] but the principles of democracy are also breathtakingly few. “Democracy has no theory to export,” Barzun wrote in 1989, “because it is not an ideology but a wayward historical development.”[45] At best, he said, democracy has a theorem: that for people to be free they must also be sovereign, and the necessary conditions for sovereignty are political and social equality. How they exercise that sovereignty, what mechanisms they use to ensure equality and to distribute freedoms, is left to them to decide. As a result, institutional forms of democracy vary significantly, a point that Carothers himself emphasizes.

“Democracy” is less a prescription for institutions and outcomes than a description of how power is distributed within a particular governmental system–historically even the most repressive political ideologies have claimed to be democratic. Liberal democracies are those that put constitutional limits on government power and protect civil liberties, and in which power and office are gained and maintained through competitive elections. The development of liberal democracy in most industrialized countries has been long and slow; the expansion of rights has often been attended by bitter conflict; and sustainability has been the result of increased economic prosperity and social mobility, and the ability to contain conflict through the rule of law. All fine, but this leaves lots of room for reasonable people to disagree not only about the machinery of governance, but about how the wheels should turn. Look, for instance, at the sharp differences between American and European peacekeepers with respect to rebuilding and regulating the media systems of Bosnia and Kosovo when it comes to hate speech restrictions, compulsory ethics codes, and public-access regulations. There are also intramural disputes of this kind; consider the ongoing debate between the Voice of America and the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors about what kind of programming would best advance the cause of democracy in the Middle East.

In Aiding Democracy Abroad, Carothers writes that postwar U.S. foreign aid began to break away from its narrow focus on strategic military and political objectives to embrace economic development when, in November 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed the Foreign Assistance Act that created USAID. A week before he was killed, Kennedy told a story about French Marshal Louis-Hubert-Gonzalve Lyautey, who walked one morning through his garden with his gardener. The Marshal stopped at a barren spot and asked the gardener to plant a tree there the next morning. The gardener said, “But the tree will not bloom for one hundred years.” The Marshal replied, “In that case, you had better plant it this afternoon.” The democratization industry may be mature, but the fruit of the global democracy project is not, not by a long shot. Carothers believes that the role of the United States in that project is crucial. Its support and engagement–or, conversely, its opposition or neglect–will be a major factor in the project’s success or failure. For that reason, Carothers’s most important caution concerns the attention-deficit disorder of donor countries and organizations that, for reasons of political or financial expedience, impatience or cynicism, may abandon democracy programs even before they have been consummated, and in the process undermine people’s belief in the possibility of a better future. He is right to worry.


* Craig LaMay, an assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, is the editor most recently of Journalism and the Debate Over Privacy (Erlbaum, 2003). He is currently writing a book on the role of media assistance in foreign aid and democracy promotion. Copyright 2004 by Craig LaMay.

[1] Jacques Barzun, “Is Democratic Theory for Export?” Society, March/April 1989, 16.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Freedom House rates as “free” those countries with an average score of between 1 and 2.5 on a combined 7-point scale of political rights and liberties. See Adrian Karatnycky, “2003 Freedom House Survey,” Journal of Democracy, Vol. 15, No. 1, January 2004. 82-84.

[4] Karatnycky, 83.

[5] Ibid., 92.

[6] Samuel P. Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992), 263.

[7] Thomas Carothers, Critical Mission: Essays on Democracy Promotion (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2004), 2.

[8] George Packer, “A Democratic World,” The New Yorker, February 16 and 23, 2004. Available at

[9] David Rieff, “A New Age of Liberal Imperialism?” World Policy Journal, Vol. 16, No. 2, Summer 1999. See also Adam Roberts, “NATO’s ‘Humanitarian War’ Over Kosovo,” in Larry Minear, Ted van Baarda, and Marc Sommers, eds., NATO and Humanitarian Action in the Kosovo Crisis (Providence, RI: Thomas J. Watson Jr. Institute for International Studies, Brown University, 2000).

[10] George Packer, “Wars and Ideas,” The New Yorker, July 5, 2004, 30.

[11] Barzun, 19, 23.

[12] Carothers, 2004, 2.

[13] The Journal is available at

[14] Thomas Carothers, Aiding Democracy Abroad: The Learning Curve (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1999).

[15] See Marina Ottaway, Democracy Challenged: The Rise of Semi-Authoritarianism (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2003).

[16] Larry Diamond, “Assessing Global Democratization a Decade After the Communist Collapse,” address to the Workshop on Democratization organized by the New Europe College and the Romanian Academic Society, May 6, 2002, Bucharest, Romania, 5.

[17] Carothers, 2004, 173.

[18] See David Held, “Democracy and Globalization,” Working Paper, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Social Sciences, May 1997. See also Held, Democracy and the Global Order: From the Modern State to Cosmopolitan Governance (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995).

[19] Ann M. Florini and P.J. Simmons, “What the World Needs Now?” in Ann M. Florini, ed., The Third Force: The Rise of Transnational Civil Society (New York: Japan Center for International Exchange and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2000), 3.

[20] Fritz Scharpf, Governing in Europe: Effective and Legitimate? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[21] Klaus Hansch, public lecture, European University Institute, Florence, Italy, June 27, 1996.

[22] Robert A. Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 319.

[23] Helmut Anheier, “Nonprofit Organizations and Democracy, Toward a Comparative Research Agenda,” in Alan Abramson, ed., Mapping New Worlds: Selected Research on the Nonprofit Sector Around the Globe (Washington, D.C.: The Aspen Institute, Non-Profit Sector Research Fund, 2001), 17.

[24] See, for example, Gary Marx, “Vote Gives Chavez Mandate, Chance to Court Opponents,” Chicago Tribune, August 22, 2004, Sec. 1, 9.

[25] See Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye, Power and Independence, 3rd edition (New York: Addison-Wesley, 2000); see also Keohane and Nye, “Introduction,” Joseph Nye and John Donahue, eds., Governance in a Globalizing World (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2000), 7-12.

[26] See Robert Kagan, The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War (New York: Vintage, 2001); and Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order(New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998).

[27] Dahl, 320.

[28] See Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977).

[29] Mary Kaldor, Helmut Anheier, and Marlies Glasius, “Global Civil Society in and Era of Regressive Globalization,” in Global Civil Society Yearbook 2003 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 3.

[30] Samuel Huntington, “Culture, Power, and Democracy,” in Marc F. Plattner and Aleksander Smolar, eds., Globalization, Power, and Democracy (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 3.

[31] Thomas Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization (New York: Doubleday, 2000).

[32] See Edward D. Mansfield and Jack Snyder, “Democratization and War,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 74, May/June 1995, 79.

[33] Amy L. Chua, “The Paradox of Free-Market Democracy: Indonesia and the Problems Facing Neoliberal Reform,” New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 2000, 1.

[34] Carothers, 2004, 219-220.

[35] See “‘New Europe’ Pushing for a Wider Europe,” Transitions Online, March 16-22, 2004; and Almut Rochowanski, “The Caucasus: The EU’s New Neighbor,” Transitions Online, June 15-21, 2004.

[36] See Keesing’s Worldwide Online,

[37] “Apathy Contest,” The Economist, June 12, 2004, 15.

[38] Anthony Smith, Nations and Nationalism in a Global Era (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995), 139.

[39] Quoted in Alan S. Milward, The European Rescue of the Nation-State (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 2.

[40] See Patrick Tyler and Don Van Natta, Jr., “Militants in Europe Openly Call for Jihad and Rule of Islam,” New York Times, April 26, 2004, A1.

[41] “Too Big for Europe?” The Economist, November 14, 2002.

[42] See

[43] Carothers, 1999, 29.

[44] Carothers, 2004, 262.

[45] Barzun, 23.